My Hometown #12: No Greater Love (Series Finale)

This piece, the last of the “My Hometown” series, was originally published in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Grand Saline Sun.

For the second time in two years, our county has been rocked by the worst Mother Nature has to offer. At 4:30 Saturday afternoon, I was seated at my computer anxiously awaiting the end of my shift. I knew that thunderstorms were moving in—I had been getting weather updates on my phone all afternoon. I cheated a little and checked Facebook, something I’m not supposed to do during work. The first thing I saw was a picture of the tornado that had formed just south of Grand Saline, and just as I hit the “Share” button, the weather alarm on my phone sounded—TORNADO WARNING FOR VAN ZANDT COUNTY! I thought to myself, “well, better late than never, I guess,” assuming it was for the tornado in the picture I’d just shared. Then I read the details of the warning and realized that, in fact, it was for a second tornado moving into the southern part of the county from near Cedar Creek Lake. It was headed for Canton, so I informed my supervisor that I needed to seek shelter. Thus began the ordeal that, for me, did not end until power was restored at my house early Monday morning, and for thousands more will not end for weeks, months, and possibly years.

I hunkered in my bathroom, covered with pillows, couch cushions, blankets—the only things I had time to grab as I listened to Mark Skirto say that a large and damaging tornado was making a beeline for the city. That is, for all intents and purposes, where I stayed until a lull in the action allowed me time to head for my sister’s house where we took shelter from the third and fourth tornadoes in her hallway. By then the power was out and cell phone service was, at best, spotty. We relied on updates via text message from family members who were out of town and watching the weather from where they were. The sound of the rain and wind was accompanied by the almost constant wail of the city storm sirens and sirens on what seemed to be far more emergency vehicles than the City of Canton has. Altogether, we were sheltered for over three hours until we were finally assured that the worst had passed us by. With the limited cell service available to us, we were able to get spotty reports of major damage, especially south of town. It wasn’t until daylight, however, that the real extent of the devastation was evident.

By now, we’ve all seen pictures, read, and heard stories of homes completely destroyed; vehicles tossed about like the Matchbox cars I used to play with as a kid; a brand new car dealership demolished; people seriously injured, and, most tragically, four lives lost—four families forever changed. Those stories and pictures will stay with us for a long time, as well they should. But, as we move further away from the event itself, something truly remarkable has also become evident—community spirit. None of us are strangers to this most special sort of “congregation” of support, love, and encouragement in the wake of tragedies. In fact, we see it all the time; but, until we experience it personally, I don’t think we can ever truly appreciate how important the idea of community really is.

Long before daylight on Sunday, hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteers from near and far had gathered in Canton waiting to fan out into the county—to Phalba, Jackson, Martin’s Mill, Fruitvale, and even up into Emory and Rains County; and to Eustace and Henderson County. These were first responders from all over North and East Texas. I saw trucks and cars from Garland and Rowlett, cities where a monster tornado had hit just over a year ago. I saw them from Dallas, Athens, Tyler, Arp, Bullard, and many other towns and cities miles and miles away. These brave men and women left their own homes and families to come and lend aide to the families here—to our families—who were suffering and hurting. And, they’re still here offering assistance with traffic control, security, first aid, and other recovery efforts.

Sunday morning I drove past Wal-Mart in Canton where the parking lot was filled with dozens of trucks carrying crews of linemen preparing to head out into the worst hit areas in an effort to restore power as quickly as possible. These crews do some of the most dangerous work there is—removing downed power lines, some of them still live, and replacing lines, poles, and transformers. Many of the crews that I saw were from out of state, and they had come to join the local crews who had begun working Saturday night even as the rain, wind, and lightning were still battering them while they worked.

I also witnessed an entire convoy of tree trimming trucks rolling into town from various places around the state. Many of them had surely given up their days off and left their families at home to begin the work of clearing massive amounts of debris from roadways and driveways so that the first responders and line crews could do their work, and so that families who had been unable to return to their homes could get back and attempt to salvage what they could from the wreckage.

Some of the most amazing stories of heroism in the face of grave danger come in the form of ordinary folks doing extraordinary things. Stories like that of the motorists passing by on a flooding roadway who jumped from their vehicles and into raging flood waters to save two infants from an overturned vehicle even as a second violent storm was bearing down on them. Stories like that of Brandon Edwards, a disabled Marine war veteran, who saw one of the tornadoes as it crossed Highway 64 and dragged a truck into an open field. Brandon jumped from his own vehicle and ran to the side of the mortally injured man—he stayed with the man even after he had succumbed to his injuries because Brandon didn’t want him to be alone. And, stories of storm spotters and intrepid Grand Saline Sun editors in the field risking their own lives to keep the public informed about the approaching storms.

It’s people like these and the countless others who have brought food, water, clothing, and supplies to local churches; it’s people like the volunteers who are now beginning to come in and offer hot meals, a safe place for displaced pets, medical care, tools, strong arms, and even shoulders to cry on who are what make the word COMMUNITY a real and tangible thing and not just an idea that we claim to believe in. It’s people like these who are readily available anytime help is needed; who are readily available to restore our faith in humanity.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches us that, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (ESV) I like to think that Jesus wasn’t just speaking about literal, physical death. I think he was also referring to people willing to set their own needs, their own wants, their own desires to the side in order to help those in need. And, this is what we’ve all been witness to over the last few days—women and men who have set aside their own lives to come lend a hand to those whose lives have been ripped apart. It makes me wonder why COMMUNITY seems so easy in times of trouble and so difficult during the good times. Wouldn’t it be a better world if we could see that “greater love” always?